The Problem with "Optics" Thinking - Moving beyond "Looking Good" to True Equity

This morning I got two event notifications for what looked to be interesting community events where the panelists were all white or all one gender. I have a personal policy that no matter how amazing, I do not attend events like this and most times I make it a point to email the organization and let them know how I feel and suggest they think through this for their next panel. This was on the heels of a conversation with a client last week around the danger of considering “optics” in their storytelling and the way and manner they curate stories from their clients and customers.

It’s not that I think white people or men don’t have something interesting to say or that I don’t understand the need to profile stories from people that represent your work. Rather, it is the composition of the panel or the conversations or lack of conversations that take place that give me pause. For panels, it’s as if to say these people we are highlighting to speak on this issue are the experts and we do not value other kinds of experts. It’s that either no one even noticed their all white panel or they did and it didn’t matter. It’s an organization saying they need to tailor the story of their client because it doesn’t fit into the appeal they have already written.

to·ken | \ ˈtō-kən
1a : representing no more than a symbolic effort
b : serving or intended to show absence of discrimination
2 : done or given as a token especially in partial fulfillment of an obligation or engagement
— Merriam Webster Dictionary

That being said, adding a person of color or woman to a panel in the interest of “optics” is just as dangerous - enter tokenism. What I am suggesting is first, being thoughtful about the composition of your tables and second, being open to different versions of expertise - people with lived experience or people who are excelling but taking a different route than the traditional infrastructure. Tokenism is diversity without the hard work of equity or inclusion - it is the act of using marginalized communities as props without incorporating their work or knowledge in the process.

How to Spot Tokenism

  1. Paid staff in charge of messaging are white but volunteer storytellers are all people of color.

    Nonprofits in particular really need success stories and if the bulk of your work occurs in marginalized communities then you are challenged to collect stories. If this is said in your office, “We need a black woman to feature this time.”

  2. For nonprofits: your board lacks diversity despite your main beneficiary being a marginalized population - For instance only one or two people of color where your work centers in a community of color or the same scenario if you serve primarily women, LGBTQ, the disabled.

    Just a note here - your board needs diversity regardless if you work in a specific community because to do your very best work you need experiences that are varied. However, the token tell is the only one or two part.

  3. You have a diversity and inclusion goal without measurable goals or steps.

    A goal without a plan is just a dream.

  4. You regularly seek the advice of marginalized members of your community to speak on behalf of all other members of that community.

Moving Beyond Tokenism

  1. Create an equity storytelling policy that guides the curation and collection of stories before they are needed and honors the stories as told rather than creating the story to match the frame you need.

    Storytelling collection should be done in a storyteller centric way that makes people feel proud and honors their version of success or events. It should never be required to receive services nor should anyone ask a storyteller to tell a certain kind of story or ask for permission to change their story because it doesn’t highlight what you want it to.

  2. Educate yourself first rather than depending on marginalized communities to do so. My recent go-to’s are White Fragility and Mindful of Race both recommendations from the Executive Director of the Richmond Peace Education Center.

    In 1980, Audre Lorde said, “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.”  “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984)

  3. Look around your decision making tables and ask yourself whose voice is missing. Then ask yourself why it is missing. Then create a plan to remedy the situation.

    The plan is the key part here. Noticing the problem is not even the first step. Understanding how you got to this place and then creating a plan to fix it and keeping yourself accountable is the most important.

  4. Do not be satisfied by public events that are absent voices of “others” or marginalized communities. Speak up and let organizations, associations, companies know how you feel.